Through a Glass, Darkly by Donna Leon

Donna Leon writes lushly about a Venice in regal decay, with the urbane and likable Commissario Guido Brunetti as her main character, yet it was not until 158 pages in (halfway through the novel) that the crime the good detective was supposed to investigate even occurred. This, I think, encapsulates everything I found frustrating about Through a Glass, Darkly.

Familial strife and the power play inside a community of Murano glass-blowers become the springboard for Leon’s novel, which shines a light on industrial pollution and the danger it poses to Venetian waters. Brunetti helps out environmental activist Marco Ribetti as a favor to a friend, but he is eventually drawn into Ribetti’s conflict with his own father-in-law, Giovanni De Cal. He is a tyrannical glass factory owner and as Brunetti asks around about him, he eventually learns of De Cal’s shoddy environmental track record and the resentment nursed by some of his own workers. A body eventually crops up in his factory and Brunetti tracks down the different clues left behind by the victim to uncover the killer’s identity.

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The Collaborator of Bethlehem (And Thoughts on the Detective Story)

Few detective novels have managed to elicit a profoundly emotional response from me the way The Collaborator of Bethlehem had. For his debut novel, Matt Beynon Rees plumbs the depths of his experience as Time Magazine‘s former Israel bureau chief to create a compelling mystery set within the context of an extremely polarizing Israel/Palestine conflict. This unflinching but compassionate portrait of life in the West Bank gives readers who are only familiar with the region through pithy CNN headlines a deeper understanding of the people who continue to live in it and the conflicting forces that affect their lives.

At the heart of the story is Omar Yussef, and aging, ornery teacher at a UN Refugee School. He takes pride in his role as an educator, promoting intellectual curiosity and integrity as a defense against a world quickly spinning out of control. When a beloved friend and student, a Palestinian Christian named George Saba, becomes a scapegoat in the murder of a resistance leader, Omar Yussef risks his life to clear his name. He is then forced to confront the ugly realities that plague Palestine of recent memory: It has become a place where upright men suffer and justice takes a backseat to warmongering.

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The Shape of Water

I first encountered Andrea Camilleri’s name while reading through Detective Beyond Borders, a blog that showcases crime fiction from around the world. Finding the copy of The Shape of Water from Booksale gave me such a thrill, and I’m glad to say this book didn’t disappoint at all.

The leisurely first chapter sets the tone of the story, with two garbage collectors performing their early morning jobs in the Sicilian town of Vigata. Their discovery of a corpse at “The Pasture” (a notorious spot of land where prostitutes and drug dealers congregate) brings them much grief, especially when they find out that the corpse is that of Engineer Luparello, an important politician. Inspector Montalbano is inevitably called into the crime scene, and immediately suspects that there is more to the story than a simple case of dying in flagrante delicto. He doggedly pursues his investigations–using unconventional and often comical methods to wring out the truth from those involved–despite pressures from political leaders to close the case quickly.

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Flawed Final Edition

In the hands of a more skilled prose writer, VL McDermid’s Final Edition could have been a pleasure to read. The premise itself is compelling: investigative journalist Lindsay Gordon returns to Scotland after a brush with the Secret Service sent her to self-exile. She immediately finds out that she’s been replaced by her girlfriend. Meanwhile, a close colleague of hers named Jackie Mitchell is in jail for the murder of the notorious Alison Maxwell, Lindsay’s former lover. When Lindsay is asked to prove Jackie’s innocence, she becomes involved in a sordid tale of blackmail and scandalous relationships that ultimately affects the life she is trying to rebuild.

Like I said, the set pieces are interesting. I like that the novel is trying to explore what it’s like to be a journalist in Glasgow and I like that it prominently features several lesbian characters with varied personalities and motivations. However, the dialogue is constantly clunky and expository, and the way Lindsay reacts to some events in the story borders on the shrill and self-righteous. Her stunt in trying to unveil the true identity of Alison Maxwell’s killer, for example, is downright ridiculous.

Slight spoilers after the jump.

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The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte: Chess and Murder

An erudite and gripping thriller, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel uses two arguably low-key elements (art restoration and chess) and turns them into the building blocks for an intelligent puzzle. I tore through my copy of this book in a couple of days until the reveal at the end, swept away by the descriptions of the Madrid art scene, the sharp dissection of chess gameplay and motivations, the reimagining of political intrigue in 15th Century Flanders.

The story begins with Julia, an art restorer tasked to refurbish a work by Flemish master Pietr Van Huys. The painting depicts three important figures within Flanders at the time, with two of them locked in an intense game of chess. While an important piece of art that could potentially generate millions in auction, there was nothing unusual about the painting until x-rays show a hidden message beneath it. Soon, an old lover of Julia’s dies mysteriously, and she can’t shake the certainty that the death is connected with the painting, somehow.

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